How to find a CEO coach who passes the chemistry test

Alan Denton explains why empathy, rapport and challenge are key to getting results with an executive coach.

When chemistry goes wrong, it can have explosive consequences. Mix iodine with ammonia or potassium with water and you get a reaction – and not always a positive one.

But get the chemistry right and amazing results can ensue.

The same principle is true of senior executive coaching; find a coach with the right chemistry and it can be the key to unlocking truly transformational change in a career or an organisation. However, as we all know, this form of chemistry can be hard to define – and even harder to find.

What does incredible look like for you?

A starting point is to ask yourself some key questions:

  • What do you want from your coach?
  • What would an amazing outcome be for you?
  • What kind of chemistry are you seeking? Explosive? Stable? Stimulating?

The investment you make in your coaching relationship and the support you need from your coach are vital areas to explore when you set about a chemistry meeting. Remember the support you receive needs to have a clear purpose, as support for the sake of it won’t change anything. So, the first step is to ask yourself how you want the relationship with your coach to be.

A successful coaching relationship should build on the outcomes you want to create – but also be open to the unknown.

Tweaks or transformation?

A successful coaching relationship should build on the outcomes you want to create – but also be open to the unknown. So, how far do you want to stretch? Some coaches will, quite rightly, support a gentle development journey whilst others will be in a space of creating a truly transformational outcomes.

For this reason, it’s important to figure out where you sit within these parameters when thinking about taking on a coach. How open are you to coaching outcomes that you currently don’t know about? (Yes, they do exist!)

Do you want to work with a coach who will challenge and ‘rock your boat’ or someone who will support your own version of the world? Put simply, how far do you want to go?

Faith in the unknown

While trust and empathy are crucial elements of any coaching relationship, so too are varying degrees of discomfort. To what extent do you want to be taken out of your comfort zone and for what reasons? What kind of breakthroughs do you really want to achieve and how can a potential coach help with this?


While coaches often, quite rightly, talk of ‘unconditional positive regard’, it might also be appropriate to consider others who also speak from a place of ruthless compassion. In any coach selection meeting it is vitally important to explore these areas – what does the coach really bring to the table – and, more importantly, what do you want them to bring?

Genuine listening

A key test is whether a coach is just saying what they think you want them to say. Are they already attached to an outcome or are they really standing for you, as the potential coachee, to create a real difference?

Selecting a coach starts with assessing the relationship – can you get on with this person, are they really listening to you, challenging your thinking, moving you forward, at whatever pace is comfortable or appropriately uncomfortable for you? Do they have the experience to match yours?

Crucially, this is not in terms of what they know – most great coaches come from and largely stay in a place of ‘not knowing’, but in being able to stand in your world as a CEO or senior executive?

Beyond empathy

Before the chemistry meeting, it’s important to decide what questions you want to ask. Then when you hear the answers, ask yourself if you are just being told what you want to hear. Yes, this coach may be empathetic, but do they really ‘get’ you as a person in terms of what drives you and what you want to achieve? Then ask yourself how you see this person helping you on your journey.

Whatever your motivation for taking on a coach, it’s a huge investment, not least in your time and energy. So, make sure you have clarity around your expectations and the kind of relationship you want to have.

A good coach will welcome your questions and any challenge you bring to the chemistry conversation – so don’t hold back with your expectations! Be clear about the relationship you want and what a breakthrough could look, sound and feel like for you.

It is only by doing this that you will be able to build the foundations of a truly worthwhile coaching relationship.


About the author

Alan Denton is an ICF accredited executive coach founder of


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